Monday, June 18, 2018

Das Rheingold (an opera review post)

Let's start out be stealing a quote from a completely unrelated story:
"...this, like any other story worth telling, is all about a girl."
Or, in this case, three girls.
At least, that's where it starts.

Das Rheingold is interesting in that it was the last part of the story Wagner conceived. Actually, he worked his way backwards, having first thought of the arc's ultimate climax, then filling in the required backstory as he wrote. Das Rheingold is considered a prologue, so it's not entirely necessary to the rest of the arc, but it does provide some pretty interesting background.

The opera opens with the three Rhine maidens cavorting in a river, which, I suppose, is what Rhine maidens do. Their actual task is to guard the Rhine gold, but that seems to be a rather boring and thankless task, so they spend their time playing games in the water. This is what Alberich finds them doing when he stumbles upon them.

This is a recipe for conflict from the very beginning. See, Alberich is a dwarf from Nibelung, which is to say that Alberich is not handsome. That doesn't stop him from being smitten by the scantily clad water sprites playing in the river, and he decides he's going to catch one and make her his own. To say this is in direct conflict with the desires of the maidens is an understatement. Not only do they not wish to "be caught" by him but, upon noticing him and how ugly he is, they decide to have some "fun" with him, which is to say that they decide to torment him with their beauty.

There's a good analogy here for today's incel movement. Putting aside the fact that the maidens are deliberating torturing him through their flirtatious ways, Alberich has already decided that he deserves to have them. Or at least one of them. How they feel about it doesn't matter to him; he feels that he has been denied something his by right because none of the three want him.

But that would have been the end of it except for the Rhine gold.

The Rhine gold is not like normal gold. It has magical properties that can allow the possessor of the gold to forge a magic ring that will give him absolute power. The only catch is that, to forge the ring, the smith must curse love and forsake it forever. After his treatment at the hands of the maidens -- or his lack of treatment at their hands, if you know what I mean -- Alberich decides that's not such a bad deal, curses love, and steals the gold. Besides, once he's become king of the world, he can compel them to have sex with him, no love required.

This, also, sounds like the men of the incel movement. And here's where I point out that Alberich is the villain in this story. Or, at least, a villain. These guys are not heroes, no matter how wronged they feel they've been.

All of that is just the beginning, maybe the first 25 minutes or so, which is way more synopsis than I usually like to give, but I wanted to make a point. Needless to say, much of the rest of the action revolves around the Ring that Alberich forges.

This particular production was great, even better than the one I mentioned that we watched on dvd. The staging was better. The actors were better. The sets were better. In particular, the character of Loge (Loki) was better. I'm sure, at least in part, this was due to the actor, Stefan Margita, who is wonderful, but it's also choices of presentation of the character by the director, Francesca Zambello. Loge is definitely my favorite character in Das Rheingold. Greer Grimsley, as Wotan (Odin), is also a step up from the other production and is pretty amazing.

But, then, the San Francisco Opera can generally be counted on for delivering great performances.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Kill the Wabbit! or Anticipating The Ring


Most people don't give opera a second thought. Or a first thought, for that matter. I mean, it's kind of a dead form of entertainment, right? That's certainly what I used to think about it. And you could make a case for that, I suppose, since it's a relatively limited form of entertainment. Not that it has to be that way, but it requires a lot of training and, well, there are all sorts of things I could get into about this, but none of it's what this post is about, so we can have that discussion some other time.

However, despite the fact that opera has become rather exclusive, it has influenced popular culture in ways people are unaware of and don't understand. Just the influence in music is unmistakable, and I don't even know that much about music or music history, but you can find pieces of opera music in, well, everything. Okay, maybe not everything, but it's fairly pervasive. But it's not just music, though I don't have the background (and am not going to do the research right now) to tell you how far the reach of opera is.

I do know enough, though, to be able to say that it's possible that Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle is the foundation of... well, a tremendous amount of our current pop culture. Or at least related to it.

Which brings me to the point: The San Francisco opera is doing the Ring Cycle! [Actually, by the time this posts, I will be in the middle of watching this, but, as I write this, I'm still a day away from Das Rheingold, the prologue to the cycle.] I'm very excited to see this. All 16 hours of it. Yeah, you heard me: 16 hours! Don't worry; it's divided into four operas presented on four, almost consecutive evenings (though there are opera houses who present the cycle in one marathon performance!).

In preparation for this (this is such a big deal, you have to buy tickets a year in advance!), my wife got me a copy of Das Rheingold for Christmas. It's a dvd of a revolutionary production of the cycle. We only just last week sat down and finally watched it, and the threads of influence are almost immediately apparent. I'll tell you the big three, which should be self-explanatory enough for you to get what I mean about it being foundational: The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Marvel Comics. Not to mention Bugs Bunny. It was well worth the watch even if I hadn't like it.

But I did like it! It was a good and interesting story and it's too bad that people are so unfamiliar with it these days.

One thing of note: The opera is done recitative. I'm pretty sure there are no arias in the entire thing. If you've followed my opera reviews at all, you'll know that I pretty typically do not like operas done entirely recitative. Generally speaking, this is due to the music more than the actual style. For some reason, post-Wagner operas done recitative tend to have very droning music with very little melody that -- for me, anyway -- makes it difficult to stay focused. It's like a very aggressive way to put people to sleep. But that wasn't the case with Das Rheingold. Despite the recitative quality, the music was very melodic, soaring in places, even. I wonder what changed with people after Wagner. Or maybe it's just a matter of skill? I don't know.

I do know, though, that I'm pretty sure that opera should not be a thing of the past.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Rebels: "The Forgotten Druid" (Ep. 2.19)

-- Chopper, we're not here to shop.

One thing seeing Solo has done for me is renewed my interest in Rebels, not that my interest had waned, I just haven't had a lot of extra time, lately, for watching anything. But, after the reveal at the end of the movie, I was reminded I needed to get back on this show. And, then, one of the first things my son said to me as we left the theater was, "Dad, we need to start watching Rebels again." Apparently, I couldn't agree more.

Historically, episodes centered around droids have not been my favorites, which is unfortunate since I really love R2 and 3PO. They just never seem to stand up to the spotlight being directly on them. Such was not the case with Chopper. Not this time, anyway. And it seems the writers wanted to give us a bit about Chopper's backstory.

The stuff dealing with droids and their societal condition is pretty interesting, all things considered, and this episode was a good one to go along with the recentness of Solo because of it. Chopper becomes... acquainted... with an Imperial protocol droid, and it's immediately clear that there is a marked difference between the condition of the droids on the rebel side -- or, at least, Chopper (and R2 and 3PO) -- and the droids on the Imperial side:

Free will sounds nice. I admire your fortitude.

It's good to be reminded that the droids are sentient beings and that their restraining bolts serve as nothing more than slave collars.

And, sure, the droids are manufactured beings, but is it okay to enslave a sentient being even if it's a being you built? It's an interesting question and one I'm sure we're soon going to be dealing with on a practical level and not just a hypothetical one.

"The entire rebel fleet is betting on Chopper."
"Yeah, try not to think about it."

Friday, June 8, 2018

Issues in Story Telling: Marked by a Lack of Tragedy

Those of you who keep up with this sort of thing probably already know that Solo has been under performing as a Star Wars movie and is looking to come in as the lowest grossing Star Wars film ever. Considering the subject matter, everyone's favorite smuggler, this is rather surprising. And alarming. It's caused some pondering on my part.

I thought it was a fine movie. Enjoyable. But I didn't love it. "Fine" is not a great recommendation for a Star Wars film, not from me, at any rate. Of course, the problem is that it's not getting a lot of love from... anywhere. The big question, then, is why.

I think I know the answer. Which is not the answer that everyone else is giving; all of those answers have to do with the problems on set, the firing of the original directing duo, and the fact that something like 70% of the movie had to be re-shot. The actual answer is much simpler: The movie is marked by a lack of tragedy.

It's not that every movie needs to have some kind of tragedy, but, I think, Star Wars movies do. They, at least, need to have that feel that there's something that could be lost, and that's true for most all stories. The risk of loss is what provides the tension in a story. Even when you know everything's going to turn out all right in the end, there needs to be that feeling of risk involved. That just doesn't exist in Solo.

Really, the whole movie can be summed up by that first game of sabaac. Han enters the game with nothing. He can't even get into it without someone else fronting him the money to get a seat at the table, which she does because... I don't know. As a business venture, it wasn't wise, because the only thing she has to go on is Han's word, "I can take him." (Or something to that effect.) So Han's in the game with absolutely nothing to lose. It doesn't matter that he wins enough to have a stack of money in front of him; if he loses, he's no worse off than he started.

And he does lose. But, you know, big deal. And Lando doesn't seem to care, either, that he doesn't have the ship he claimed to have which he'd put up against the Falcon in their final hand. It just doesn't come up again.

At any rate, you can't feel bad for Han's loss because he had nothing to lose, nor can you be upset at Lando for cheating, because Han was cheating, too, even if not so directly as having a card up his sleeve.

And you can't feel too badly for the loss of Han's "friends," either, since those relationships were about as real as the ship Han lost to Lando during their game of sabaacc. They're not friends just because you declare them so, no matter how much the writers wanted us to believe it. Tobias just doesn't become a Qui-Gon and there's no sense of loss when he dies; it doesn't matter that Han pulled the trigger. In fact, it's probably because Han pulls the trigger that, as the audience, we're so easily able to shrug it off.

I just wish it didn't make the movie so easy to shrug off, which I think it is. That's disappointing to me from a Star Wars movie. The franchise seems to have lost its way without Lucas at its head to give it an overall vision. Which isn't to say that it has to be Lucas doing that, but someone needs to do it. This "let each director do what he wants" shit isn't working out. Someone needs to bring balance back to the Force before its the loss of Star Wars itself that is the tragedy.